Book Review for “The Good Doctor of Warsaw” by Elizabeth Gifford.
Summary: “Deeply in love and about to marry, students Misha and Sophia flee a Warsaw under Nazi occupation for a chance at freedom. Forced to return to the Warsaw ghetto, they help Misha’s mentor, Dr Janusz Korczak, care for the two hundred children in his orphanage. As Korczak struggles to uphold the rights of even the smallest child in the face of unimaginable conditions, he becomes a beacon of hope for the thousands who live behind the walls. As the noose tightens around the ghetto, Misha and Sophia are torn from one another, forcing them to face their worst fears alone. They can only hope to find each other again one day . . . Meanwhile, refusing to leave the children unprotected, Korczak must confront a terrible darkness.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Fiction – Literary, Biographical, WWII, Romantic; Settings: Historical, Poland, Warsaw; Other Categories: Novel.
This turned out to be one of the more difficult book reviews to write. Obviously, being Jewish, books about the Holocaust, if done right, can have a profound effect on me. I asked for this book because I knew from the title, before I read the summary, that this was going to be about Dr Janusz Korczak. In Israel, there’s not a child who hasn’t heard his name and story, and the country has honored him in many ways, including naming streets after him (one being in my old neighborhood). He was an author, teacher, and pediatrician, who dedicated his life to caring for children, and promoting their rights. In 1924, his writings helped the League of Nations to pass the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child. In 1989 this developed into the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), whose “… essential themes … include the right to the basic needs for optimal growth and development; civil and political rights; and a right to safety and protection. The UNCRC is the first legally binding international document to recognize the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of the child.” So, we’re not only talking about a Jewish hero who taught and cared for thousands, and then chose to die together with his charges in Treblinka, but a man about whom every man, woman, and child in the world should study.
Therefore, you can imagine that taking that level of historic icon, and turning his life into a work of biographical fiction is no easy task. Obviously, this is why Gifford decided to shift the focus of her story to two other people – Misha and Sophia – both of whom had very close connections with Korczak (and yes, both of whom really existed and survived to tell their stories). By using these survivors, Gifford was able to observe Korczak’s orphanage and school from bit of a distance, that was still close enough to not overlook some details. In this, I believe Gifford succeeded in walking that tightrope where the balance between fact and fiction worked out perfectly, never becoming overly weighed down by minutia and never wandering too outside the lines of reality. With this, Gifford drew these main characters to be both highly believable and immensely sympathetic. So much so that you’ll be hoping that they’ll all come out alive, to the last one.
Gifford also did her research well in trying to piece together what the Warsaw Ghetto was like before it was essentially razzed almost completely to the ground during the war. Of course, photographic evidence of its pre-war glory is easily available, but walking the streets today will give you no indication of what it was before. Gifford truly imbued this work with the flavor (if not the sights, sounds, and smells) of what life in Warsaw was like before these tragic events, and then carefully reconstructed its destruction one bit at a time as the war progressed, in a very effective manner. And yes, I did cry some (if you read this book, you’ll know when I cried the first time by the title I gave this review. The second was when reading the author’s notes), so there is that in its favor as well.
With all this praise, you might be wondering why I’m not giving this story a full five stars. There were actually two reasons for this. First, I’m guessing that – as much as I’m sure that Misha and Sophia were truly love birds – I’m wondering if Gifford didn’t romanticize that relationship a touch too much, while glossing over what must have been some very rocky times. The other reason is that, although I understand why Gifford used Misha and Sophia to tell this story, I often felt like the story focused too much on them, and not enough on Korczak. I’m also guessing that the vast majority of people who read this book probably don’t know anything about Korczak or his legacy, so this won’t bother them at all. Once again, this might be a problem with me knowing a touch too much about the real person behind the character. This is why I’ll still warmly recommend this novel with a very healthy four stars out of five, with the full knowledge that many will rate it much higher.
Simon & Schuster – Pegasus Books released “The Good Doctor of Warsaw” by Elizabeth Gifford on January 5, 2021 (originally released in 2018 in the UK by Atlantic Books – Corvis). This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.